After Education

Review: ‘The Case Against Education’ by Bryan Caplan

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January 28, 2018

I have met Bryan Caplan, libertarian extraordinaire and professor of economics at George Mason University, exactly once. I was an intern; he, a speaker to my intern class. Afterwards, at lunch, I found myself in a 45-minute argument with the good professor, which ended with his insistence that the American Revolution was unjustifiable on utilitarian grounds.

Caplan is undoubtedly brilliant. Like most prominent libertarian thinkers, he is also frequently infuriating. But when he is right, he is very right. The Case Against Education, a book 10 years in the making, is a case of Caplan being right.

Provocative title aside, Caplan’s initial focus is a relatively narrow one. He is interested in the "education premium," the economic observation that people with high school degrees earn substantially more than their dropout counterparts, that people with college degrees earn substantially more than their only-high-school counterparts, and so forth. Why, Caplan asks, is the education premium so high—high school grads make 30 percent more than dropouts, and college grads make a whopping 70 percent more than high school—when most of what we learn is largely irrelevant to what we actually get paid to do?

This point makes some intuitive sense. Consider: How frequently do you use high school French in your day job? What about trigonometry? Nineteenth-century history? Through an exhaustive study of the literature, Caplan argues that not only do we not use this information, but even if we did, we are pretty bad at remembering it—studies suggest that Americans do a poor job both retaining what they learn in school and generalizing from specific lessons to general skills.

Caplan labels the school that thinks education does have real returns as "human capital purism," the idea that there is a real connection between education and the quality of human output. For this theory, he has many questions: Why does a college drop-out with all but one semester completed make so much less than a college grad (the so-called sheepskin effect)? Why do students so readily skip classes for which they're paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, if each class actually improves their market value? Why, when one could basically walk into any Ivy League class, unnoticed and for free, do people not?

Caplan thinks the answer to all these questions is the economic theory of "signalling." The idea, as he explains it, is that in labor markets, employers have imperfect information about a would-be employee’s capabilities. Therefore, they look for apparent facts about a person that reveal his fitness for employment—a well-dressed applicant, for example, signals something that a poorly dressed applicant does not.

The education premium is mostly due to signalling, with a degree being a proxy for a mix of three qualities: intelligence, work ethic, and conformity. People who are able to excel intellectually while spending lots of time in a very boring system doing often useless things without question are, Caplan contends, pretty ideal workers in today’s economy.

Certain things education teaches, Caplan is quick to add, are good for the economy, especially literacy and numeracy. But most of the education premium—80 percent in Caplan's opinion—is attributable to signalling rather than the actual accumulation of knowledge.

In other words, the 13 to 20 years of our lives that we spend in schools mostly add up to a competition to show future employers that we can outlast our peers. What's more, this competition has become an arms race, as students spend more and more time and money on schooling to prove that they are more dedicated—even if they aren't actually learning any more in the process.

Caplan's message may be technical—if highly readable—but his point is increasingly, pressingly urgent. Recently a friend, pursuing his MFA in creative writing, informed me of the rise of doctorates in his field. Soon it will be the case that in order to be taken seriously as an author of fiction, he suggested, one will need a Ph.D. in creative writing.

Credentialing creep in such nonacademic fields indicates a bigger problem. As we invest more and more in education, it crowds out other mechanisms of legitimation, the signals that we use to determine if we should take another person seriously. Simultaneously, the system's costs grow enormous: College tuition has outpaced inflation for decades, leading to 44 million Americans holding 1.48 trillion dollars of student debt as of 2018, a number that is only likely to increase.

Education is often picked out as a legitimator because it is ostensibly meritocratic, helping people rise regardless of background. In practice, Caplan argues, the signalling arms race means that the well-off will simply buy more education, while the poor are left saddled by useless degrees. Even voices on the left have noted that racial wealth gaps persist within education levels, casting doubt on education's ability to alleviate persistent racial disparities.

Nonetheless, this critique of the education arms race is undergirded by an unspoken but central illiberal inegalitarianism. Some people, Caplan argues, personally benefit from pursuing a college degree; others, no more than high school; still others, for whom school shows no returns, are almost certainly better off getting out and into the workforce as soon as possible.

This idea—that school, nevermind college, is not for everyone—runs contrary to liberal insistences that education is the great liberator of our society. But this is only inegalitarianism when narrowly constrained, viewed from the linear achievement perspective that is perpetuated by—is an essential feature of—a system of legitimation that prioritizes the current education system over all other credentials.

Dense with facts, charts, and uncompromising rationality, The Case for Education should make its reader uncomfortable not only because it is provocative, but because it is persuasive. The astute reader should take advantage of that discomfort to ask: What happens after education?

Caplan has pieces of an alternative. He dedicates a whole chapter to the virtues of vocational education, which is very measurably a contribution to "human capital" in a way much of general education isn't. And he discusses how to undo the hegemony of education (surprise, surprise: his answer is to privatize all education).

It is worth thinking beyond these proposals. The exit from traditional education can extend beyond blue collar labor, for example. The number of journalists without college degrees has shrunk from 42 percent in 1971 to under 8 percent today. It is simply not obvious that journalism has changed very much in that time (if anything, it has expanded to require lower barriers to entry). Why do most journalists need a college degree?

The same logic can and should apply elsewhere. The end of general education's hegemony is viewed far too often as limiting, a way to make people less equal and free. If Caplan is to be believed—and readers should give him a serious look—then quite the reverse is true. An end to education can be liberating, an opportunity to reimagine how we decide how people work and make their livelihoods in the first place.

Published under: Book reviews